2018 is quite a time to be alive. It almost seems as if the liturgical calendar is trolling the world as Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, falls on Valentine’s Day, while Easter falls on April Fools’ Day. This is just too good.
All joking aside, however, this may hopefully give us more reason to look at Ash Wednesday and Lent. With prior posts we’ve made about Advent (Here) and Epiphany (Here), we’ve been paying more attention to the liturgical calendar and discovered that over time, particularly in American Protestantism, we’ve lost some truly significant elements of the Church calendar that we would do well to rediscover. Lent, I believe, is one of these elements.
Lent, in a nutshell, is the period of observance between Ash Wednesday and Easter in which the believer prepares their heart for Holy Week, marking the arrest, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Lenten observance is used as a call to repentance and denial of self-indulgence while reflecting on the sinful state of humanity that moved Jesus to the Crucifixion.
Lent is often observed by a period of fasting and/or the giving up of certain luxuries or vices. Many also take up spiritual disciplines such as more fervent prayer or scripture reading, reading a daily devotional, acts of service, etc.
I look forward to this time of year as it offers challenge and enrichment for my soul. Lent, like other liturgical calendar observances, offers us a heightened perspective on life and faith which can strengthen our walks greatly. Lent, in particular, is one I believe to be special as it offers a renewed focus to aspects we tend to trivialize in “Christianese“.
Lent offers a reality check to harsh truths we often gloss over.
As Christians, we’re all about that grace, ’bout that grace (no treble… sorry, couldn’t resist). Grace, however, calls us to acknowledge why we need it. Lent offers us a deeper look at our need for God’s grace: the desperate state of the human condition that screams for a Savior. In the Lenten season, we are enabled to let go of distractions in order to see more clearly what Jesus saved us from.
Lent reminds us that every one has an expiration date. As powerful, untouchable, invincible, and free as we may sometimes feel, we’re all going to die. As important as we may believe ourselves to be in terms of status, individuality, et cetera, Death disregards this self-imposed importance and stalks us.
Death entered the world through sin and has been a curse upon man ever since. We are reminded of this in the Lenten rites when the Cross of Ashes is drawn upon the forehead on Ash Wednesday. The chilling words remind us of this: “From dust you came, to dust you shall return.”
We are bound to wither, die, and decay. Despite things we have told ourselves to soften the blow, that Death is a doorway or a friend taking us onward, we are reminded that Death is a cursed foe of humanity. However, in the span between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Christ submitted Himself to the throes of Death, and then upended this foe in the greatest victory of all time.
Death is an enemy, but a defeated one. By the power of Christ, Death is defeated and will one day be vanquished forever. Death is still a reality, but by the work of Christ, it is not the end. In Lent, we acknowledge our own mortality along with the fact that the Savior who died and rose again has conquered Death.
Another portion of the words spoken while receiving the ashes reminds us of our need for a Savior. “Repent and hear the Gospel.” Lent reminds us that sin is a continual thorn in our side, a constant pitfall in our path.
Despite the good each person is capable of, we are under the curse of a skewed moral compass constantly drifting toward evil. We are rebellious creatures driven to seek our own gratification above all else. We live in conflict with our flawed natures, often to our own detriment.
In this sinfulness, we are particularly prone to idolatry, lifting the created over the Creator. We let various vices and luxuries become our deities, and push the true God aside. We are selfish, flawed, and fallen.
And yet, Christ loved us with a ferocious love, a love ferocious enough to accept the violent death of a criminal, to be a willing scapegoat for all, a perfect fulfilling sacrifice, a ransom for many. In that, He conquered sin, Satan, and Death; winning the ultimate victory.
Lent reminds that a perfect Savior gave himself over to pain and death to rescue His fallen sinful beloved. This truth compels us to heed the Lenten plea: “Repent and hear the Gospel.”
I’m wearing this point out, I know, but it remains: we live in a cursed world. Our world is cursed with chaos. This world is out of order and often out of control. Whether by product of poor choice, circumstance, or freak random occurrence, bad things happen.
Suffering is a harsh reality of this world. Poverty, sickness, and loss abound. In many places of the world, many wonder if they’ll eat today, or even live to see tomorrow. Yet in our fluffy first-world existence, many of us are removed from this struggle to the point of ignorance.
Yes, we suffer here – but we have a rather small view of suffering. We come to believe God has it in for us or the world has turned against us when we get a small ding in the side of the car, when the internet is down, when we’re stuck in traffic. We cry out “woe is me” over minor inconveniences when many of us have no concept of how deep suffering can go.
On top of that, many of us in American Christianity have bought into an idea that despite the guarantee of suffering seen in Scripture, we’re too good for it, that it’s God’s job to immediately eradicate it, and that those who suffer do so because they’re somehow living wrong. Not only are we removed from most suffering, we now demand exemption from it.
In Lent, we’re reminded that our egos need to be set aside. We’re invited to consider the life of Christ, described as a man well acquainted with suffering, and not just in the Crucifixion.
We’re talking about a man scorned constantly for His hometown, His humble status, the company He kept, the words He spoke, and the challenges He issued to the status quo. He wandered years with no home, was rejected by His neighbors, called crazy by His family, and slandered as evil. He endured heartache, betrayal, abandonment, and finally, was falsely accused of heinous crimes and wrongfully sentenced to a grueling criminal execution. Yet He endured all of this willingly.
Jesus was not and is not removed from the reality of human suffering. He felt it and invited it upon himself. What’s more, He is present with every single person on this planet who suffers. So in light of that, maybe we can get past our own egos and self-indulgence, and even if it’s just the denial of a vice, willingly take up some suffering of our own.
So, looking back, maybe I’ve made this whole Lent thing sound pretty gloomy. True, it is a solemn observance that does force us to face some harsh realities. However, amidst all that, I am excited for it and believe we should celebrate Ash Wednesday and Lent with joy.
We can celebrate in joy that our God has conquered Death. We can celebrate in joy that Christ has won victory over sin. We can celebrate that Jesus is not removed or unfamiliar with suffering. We can celebrate that we can step outside ourselves and be recalibrated toward holiness. We can celebrate that we can take a step toward those who suffer and remind ourselves of our kinship with them in God’s image and love.
Even in the solemnity, there is much to celebrate and be joyous for. So, let’s make our sacrifices, take up our disciplines, receive the ashes, and celebrate the God who brings us to Himself.
Blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent to you all!